I am so fortunate and blessed to learn and discover a culturally diverse group of inspiring and creative businesses around the world owned by strong, passionate, intelligent and empowered women. One of them is the founder and creative director of Hecho. A curated emporium featuring ethically sourced handmade works that serve as the intersection of contemporary design and traditional artisan processes. Ehren partners with talented artisans based in Mexico and Guatemala to design and create ethically-made products from handwoven bags to kitchen accessories fabricated out of copal and tobacco glazed. Read on to learn more about the brand, the artisans and the woman who started it all.
What's the story behind Hecho?
The foundation for this project began to take shape when I was regularly traveling the globe for international development work. With this, I was able to connect with a number of government agencies, NGOs and skilled artisans throughout Asia, Europe and Latin and North America.
Inspiration arose from the handmade pieces and artisan stories that I gathered while on the road, along with the recognition of a desire to share these remarkable experiences within the context of a sustainable business built on partnerships, respect and transparency.
My move to Oaxaca, Mexico was intentional and the specific focus was around building a socially focused business collaborating directly with local artisans.
Simply put, we are not in the business of making money off of the backs of artisans with Hecho – we are in it to support their backs.
Hecho means ‘made’ or ‘to make’ in Spanish. Within the context of our business, the name of our company simultaneously reflects the handmade process (to make), the collaborative connection with our artisan partners (making local connections), along with our collective efforts to create and market contemporary pieces that appeal to a global roster of clients (making international contacts to bridge a connection between Mexican/Guatemalan artisans and global clients).
A small group of hand-selected artisans in Mexico and Guatemala serve as the base of the Hecho collaborative partners. Can you tell us more about these artisans and their work?
As we are based full-time in Oaxaca, Mexico, the bulk of our artisans are from Mexico. This is partially due to logistics, as it is easier for us to move about within our own country, and it is also important to us to meet with our partners in person on a regular basis, as well as to contribute in a positive way to our own community. At present, we work with artisans in three different Mexican states, but we plan to gradually expand into other parts of Mexico.
We also work with one small community in Guatemala that we connected with while traveling in the region a couple of years ago. As they create handmade pieces that cannot be found in Mexico – gorgeous combed wool blankets in a distinct design – we were interested in including them in our selection of handmade goods. While Mexico will always be our center focus, we do plan to explore more possibilities in Guatemala in future.
Let's talk about the products. What are the creative inspiration? What type of materials/fabrics are used to create each items?
Overall, our desire is to develop ethically-made pieces that serve as the intersection of contemporary design and traditional processes. In addition to this, we believe in quality over quantity, as well as slow-made works that directly support the makers, rather than disposable, mass-produced factory pieces that essentially benefit the corporate machine. Our hope is that when clients invest in our products, they are cherished as heirloom pieces that are passed down to the next generation.
As for creative inspiration, we collaborate directly with artisans on works that will appeal to a modern global market. I will admit that I have minimalist tendencies, and possess a particular soft spot for multifunctional pieces that usually involve neutrals so that they can be incorporated into a range of spaces. Our palette typically involves cream, grey, earth tones and natural shades of blue, pink and peach. Traditional designs are used as spring boards for our pieces, which we often scale back and tweak to create works that appeal to a broader market. While we generally provide feedback and guidelines for our custom pieces, we sometimes leave the creative vision entirely up to our artisans with only a few stipulations (natural materials, simple design, neutral colors).
Our goal is to keep things as natural as possible, and with this, our curated line of custom products includes wood, maguey, cotton, clay, wool, leather and tin. Our current focus is around incorporating as many natural dyes as we can, while keeping the overall costs in mind. Each of these materials also has a story to tell – from the incredible history of cochineal in the Oaxaca valley, to the impressive process of washing, carding and spinning natural wool by hand. In the end, we’re not looking to introduce more plastic or chemicals to the system, but rather devising ways to work with what nature provides.
Can you describe the process of finding ethical sources?
New partnerships generally start with a visit to the artisan’s workshop to learn about and document their making process. This is partially to ensure that we are dealing directly with the makers, rather than intermediators, but also to overview the conditions of the workspace and evaluate the time spent on pieces so that we can establish fair pay for our work together. This also allows us time to have a conversation about the types of benefits that would most help our partners to flourish.
It’s a tremendous amount of work to source new artisan partners, as it takes time, effort, money and patience. After reviewing the artisan workspace, we typically start with a test project to evaluate if it’s a good fit related to our focus on ethically-made works that need to be consistent in the way of quality, that deadlines are met, and that we are able to maintain open and honest communication throughout.
Why it's important to use ethically sourced materials?
For our planet, for our health, and for our future.
Explain how Hecho is committed to transparency and ethical sourcing practices?
Our transparency comes into play with the information that we share around the artisans and the processes behind our pieces within the public realm, and with our own clients. This storytelling is important to the work that we do with Hecho, and we feel that it is imperative, both to provide clarity around how pieces are made, and as a matter of respect for our partners.
On top of this, we maintain active and open communication with our artisan partners. We don’t have any hesitation in explaining how our business works, and our partners have a solid picture of what it is that we’re doing, how and why.
Finally, we ask questions and we listen. It’s dangerous to assume what another person needs, and with this, we are able to better gauge how we can best collaborate with our partners so that our work together is positive for both sides.
While we do pay above fair wage for our pieces, we also incorporate other projects like donating wool cushion scraps that our partners use to make stuffed animals to sell in the market for extra income, assisting artisans to set up and photograph their products for their own use, plus writing and translating marketing materials for them to apply to their own businesses. Sometimes, the need for time-specific projects come up, as well. For example, we are currently working with a family who require extra income to pay for for appointments for their autistic child and her development. Together we devised a new project that they work on in their spare time that helps to cover some of these extra expenses.
In the end, it is important to us that our partners know that we are invested in them, their families and their future. We make time to spend at their homes and workshops, we get to know their families and check into their well being, and we employ our own skill sets into projects that help them to flourish on their own, outside of our work together. That said, we are not operating from a point of charity or any type of notion that we are lifting people out of poverty. That is a long and complicated process, and our artisans also do not live in poverty. They are savvy, professional and hardworking. Ours is a business relationship and we both hold each other to a high standard. In the end, our artisans are helping us as much – or even more – than we are helping them. They have my unwavering respect and admiration for so many reasons.
Why did you decide to help and provide sustainable jobs to people living in Mexico and Guatemala?
Because Mexico is my home and Guatemala is my neighbor. There’s an incredible amount of talent here, however the economic gaps are also wide and not everyone is offered the same types of opportunities.
What are the significant changes you’ve witness in their lives?
While we have been working with some of our artisan partners for over two years, we only launched in June of last year. In order to witness a larger focus around changes in the lives of our partners, more time is required. We will keep you posted.
Who is the woman behind the brand? Tell us about yourself and background?
My art and design education was spent in my home country of Canada, as well as Edinburgh, Scotland. Shortly after graduation, I moved to New York City and worked as a graphic designer and creative director for eight years – mainly in magazines and marketing.
After that, I headed back to the West Coast of Canada to be closer to family, and it was there that I started working in international development. I traveled so much over the span of the next six years, that I gave up my apartment after the first year and remained nomadic for the rest of my time working in that profession. While this was sometimes inconvenient, it allowed me to save my money for future pursuits, and also prepared me for long stretches of living outside of my familiar surroundings and comfort zone, which came in handy when I decided to move to the unknown in Oaxaca. I regularly traveled throughout Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America, and made some great contacts in the process. I also had the opportunity to meet loads of local artisans, which sparked a passion for future projects.
While traveling for work may seem glamorous in theory, there are many sacrifices that go along with it – namely your social life and your health. After some time, I was also craving work that was more satisfying to my personal ethos, along with my professional goals. In the end, I wanted my own company working with artisans and wanted to be my own boss.
I set my focus on Ecuador and Mexico as possibilities, as both have an incredible array of ongoing artisan traditions. I was discussing my desire for change with a contact from the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City who suggested a side trip to Oaxaca, the next time I was in town for work. I spent one week in Oaxaca, and knew it was the right choice. I finished my work travels in Asia and Europe, then left my job to start a new chapter.
In the first months, I focused on learning Spanish (I only had English and French prior to) and later on making contacts within the artisan communities. Hecho grew organically from there and is gradually evolving. I’m married to a Oaxacan now, so in addition to his family treating me like their own, I have also been adopted by a few other families locally. Taking a risk was the best move that I could have done at this point in my life and I’m incredibly grateful to be where I am at at the moment.
While I often refer to ‘we’ and ‘us’ in my focus around Hecho, this is mainly in regards to my artisan partners. Outside of that, I do everything myself – from the photography, writing, marketing, and product development, to carrying loads of textiles home on 12-hour bus rides, packing shipments and sourcing new artisan partners. It can be challenging working as a one-woman show, however I have met inspiring people within the industry who are doing incredible work, and I also have had wonderful support from my own family and friends. These elements help to keep me grounded and moving forward.
Photo: Ehren Seeland
You also actively maintain a special focus on supporting women in their creative work both as a group or as individuals. Can you elaborate? How imperative it is for these women to receive such encouragement?
I actively place special importance on seeking out creative women to collaborate with. For those groups where I work more directly with the men in the family, there is always strong women in the mix who are imperative to the success of their family and their business as a whole.
As a woman in business, I feel that it is important that we as women support each other and encourage each other to flourish. Women are the backbone of our society – in collaborating with female artisans in an ethical way, you are not only supporting an individual, but an entire family and in some cases, a village. There have been numerous studies to support the fact that women are more likely to reinvest in their own families and community. With this, our work together sees a wider reach that benefits a larger group as a whole.
Further to this, of the populations that are living in poverty in the world, the largest percentage – by a wide margin – is women. They do more of the work, are offered less of a voice, and possess less of the assets overall. If I have the good fortune of making it to a ripe age, when I am an old lady in my bed, I want to be comforted by the fact that my time and efforts in life were spent helping my sisters move forward to a fulfilling life where their voice is heard and their efforts are appreciated.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
If I am to be honest, I’m not great about maintaining an even work/life balance. I put in long hours and I like working. The biggest difference now as to before is that my time, to some degree, is my own. I choose who I work with, how my days will be laid out and most importantly, I take positive steps to reaching various goals.
I wouldn’t go so far to say that my business doesn’t feel like work. There are constant challenges and various tedious tasks that go along with owning and running our own business – accounting, placing and maintain deadlines, issues with international shipping, and so on. That said, I remember what the view from a cubicle looks like, and what it’s like asking permission for time off in your own life. I’m not going back to that and that’s the biggest motivator of all.
In your opinion, do you think there's any challenges to women’s leadership in the corporate world?
Of course. I’m not directly working in the corporate world anymore, but I clearly remember examples from my time in the publishing industry, as well as the world of academia, for that matter. I’d see men promoted over more deserving women, old boys type of behavior and comments that would make my lip curl. Often, when a man was direct and insistent during business dealings, he was seen as a leader, where a woman doing the same was seen as confrontational or worse. I remember one job interview where the first question they asked me was if I planned to have children, which I suppose was seen as a liability and I believe was also illegal, and I told them so.
That said, the best thing that we can do as women is to keep moving forward, to make our voices heard clearly, and most importantly, to support other women in the business realm. Together we are stronger – always.
Are your products available worldwide? Where can we purchase them?
Currently, we have like-minded stockists in Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, and the United States. In addition to this, we also ship worldwide for direct purchases. Due to ongoing issues in Oaxaca, we have chosen to not enable our site for e-commerce just yet, but we do plan on it in future. That said, clients can contact us directly to purchase and we can provide shipping quotes – we have very good rates. We also plan to offer a limited selection of pieces on a custom Etsy page in the very near future. For now, you can contact us at our business email at: firstname.lastname@example.org and/or my personal email at: email@example.com
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